Suggestions for shoppers
More than 15 years after genetically modified foods quietly entered the American marketplace, we’re still not sure whether they’re safe to eat.
A recent study published by the International Journal of Biological Sciences linked Monsanto’s genetically modified corn to organ damage in rats. Meanwhile, a Canadian study detected GM-associated pesticides in the bloodstreams of pregnant women and their developing infants.
If you prefer to avoid genetically modified food, you’ll have to read labels carefully.
None of this research was done 16 years ago, when GM crops were first introduced in the U.S. In part, that’s because biotech companies aren’t required to conduct mandatory human clinical trials of genetically engineered organisms.
When polled, most Americans say they support mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods. But the federal government doesn’t regulate the use of GMOs, nor does it mandate labeling. None of the 17 states with mandatory-labeling bills pending have succeeded in achieving their passage.
Here are eight tips that will help you steer clear of genetically engineered foods on your next trip to the grocery store. In the meantime, check out the Just Label It campaign to find out more about GM labeling.
- Start with labels. U.S. laws do not require food manufacturers to list GM ingredients on packaging. Many Americans who prefer to avoid GM foods are choosing organics, but foods certified by the USDA as “organic” can still contain small amounts of GM ingredients. That’s because they must contain 95 percent organic substances in order to carry the USDA seal. Only products certified by the USDA as “100 percent organic” guarantee the absence of GMOs.
In an effort to take the guessing game out of shopping, many food manufacturers are now turning to third-party certification in an effort to gain consumer confidence. Look for foods featuring the “Non GMO Project Verified” seal to be sure your food is GMO-free.
- Avoid risky ingredients. Genetically modified crops in the U.S. include corn, canola, soybeans, cottonseed, sugar beets — even Hawaiian papaya. If these products aren’t labeled non-GMO, they probably aren’t (another reason to read labels carefully!).
- Go local. Often these GM ingredients come from large industrial farms. Instead of choosing big-name brands, make an effort to select foods produced by smaller companies. If you can, skip the supermarket altogether and purchase food at the farmers market. You’ll have the added benefit of supporting your local economy and helping to reduce environmental damage caused by extensive shipping. Food co-ops are another great way to access a wide range of local, GM-free food, often at prices lower than those at supermarkets featuring organic food.
- Forgo farm-raised salmon. There are many claims about the health risks associated with farm-raised salmon, from their increased rate of sea lice to diets based heavily on genetically modified soy, canola, and corn meal (and laced with antibiotics and chemicals). If wild salmon is unavailable or too expensive, ask your fishmonger for suggestions on local and sustainable seafood options.
- Choose your beef wisely. Many cattle are raised entirely on grass, but spend the last part of their lives in feedlots, where they are bulked up with GM corn. To ensure that your meat is GMO-free, look for beef labeled “100 percent grass-fed” or “pasture-finished.” When it comes to protein that cannot be purely grass-fed, such as poultry, choose products labeled “100 percent organic.”
- Buy growth-hormone-free dairy. In 1993, the FDA approved genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (known as rBGH or rBST) for use in commercial dairy farming. If you consume dairy, the Oregon board of Physicians for Social Responsibility suggests buying products from animals not injected with growth hormones. Plus, dairy animals may be eating GM foods. Your best bet is to buy certified organic dairy products instead.
- Protect your sweet tooth. A large part of U.S. sugar production is derived from GM sugar beets. If you must buy processed foods, avoid products with “sugar” listed among the ingredients. Instead, opt for alternatives containing only “pure cane sugar,” which is not genetically modified.
- Use an app! With so much information to remember, you might feel overwhelmed on your next trip to the store. But if your head starts to spin as you peruse the pasta aisle, don’t give up. There’s an app that can help: The True Food Shoppers Guide, created by the Center for Food Safety, offers detailed information that will help you fill your cart with GMO-free foods.
Caitlin Junkin has lived in the United States, Italy, France, and Spain. She is a food historian, sommelier, amateur photographer, and experienced chef’s apprentice who believes that food is one of the best ways to experience different cultures.